Journalistic scoops

THERE was a lot of self-congratulatory glee at NBC this week. The network aired an exclusive interview with Mikhail Gorbachev Monday and followed it up with a mass interrogation of the United States presidential candidates on Tuesday. Not a great deal of fresh ground was broken. About the only thing new out of the Gorbachev interview was the official admission that the Soviet Union has a strategic defense initiative under way, along the lines of the American one it is trying to prevent. In the few minutes each of the presidential candidates had to speak, there was no time to develop issues, but merely an attempt to craft clever one-liners.

But still and all, it was a major journalistic triumph for NBC; perhaps not the ``coup of the decade,'' as one ecstatic NBC official referred to the Gorbachev interview, but pretty good stuff. The American public got to see Mr. Gorbachev at first hand, to decide for itself whether he weaved and bobbed on some issues, was conciliatory or aggressive on others, was well informed or ill informed about the US and its intentions.

The curmudgeons might argue that the public would have been better served with a different format. If a panel of correspondents had been able to interview Gorbachev, he might have been harder pressed. Or if a correspondent who was a real Soviet expert had been set against him by NBC, instead of its star anchor, Gorbachev might have been held more strictly accountable.

This is not to be churlish to the intelligent and amiable Tom Brokaw, but as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the getting, and staging, of the interview with such celebrities have assumed greater importance than the actual story that emerges from it. Said the Journal: ``WHO gets the interview is at least as newsworthy as the interview itself.''

Every major news organization had pursued Gorbachev, using a variety of blandishments. The New York Times guaranteed to print the interview in full. ABC offered a choice of Barbara Walters on ``20/20'' or Ted Koppel on ``Nightline.'' CBS says it got knocked out of the contest because Dan Rather had at an earlier news conference asked tough questions on human rights.

It may come as a shock to the public to discover that there is a certain amount of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing on these big interviews. The interviewees will sometimes demand a certain length of air time; will want to know whether the interview will be cut and edited; will want to know whether it runs in its entirety. Sometimes there is negotiation over the date and time of airing, discussion about what appears immediately before and immediately after the interview, who else will appear on the show, even who the interviewer will be. Sometimes questions are demanded in advance. Various news organizations have different standards and rules about the extent of such negotiation.

The NBC interview does, however, raise a few warning signals about the pursuit of the journalistic scoop. The real journalistic objective should be pursuit of information, and the exclusive should be but a means to gaining that end. In some circumstances, getting the exclusive becomes the end, and the information garnered in it becomes incidental.

In the midst of a US presidential campaign there is a lot of journalistic questioning about how intrusive the press should be. Good, responsible competition among news organizations makes a free press stronger. But there have also been some journalistic aberrations and ethical lapses as a result of competition. This time around, the public was not particularly ill served by NBC's scoop. But overheated journalistic zeal may not always serve the public best.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.